The UK from Colombia: FARCing the left



Colombia noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all. Since I’ve already done one blog post about the similarities between the UK and Colombia I thought I’d do a second. The UK noticeably lacks a left wing in parliament and barely has a left wing presence in the public sphere at all.

If you ask a leftist in either country why this is the case many would launch into a long history of political repression of the left.  Clearly the left were repressed in Colombia, and the FARC guerrilla movement grew during a period – the National Front years, when the two major parties shared power as a way of ending the violence between them – when the country was only notionally democratic and new political parties were forbidden. The National Front era culminated in a fairly moderate leftist candidate being defrauded of the presidency, igniting even more guerrilla activity.

Meanwhile in the UK we have the bogeywoman Thatcher who deliberately set out to destroy the union movement and largely succeeded, leaving it a shadow of its former self. The working class were either beaten down or bought off with houses that left them in debt that changed their political interests, says this narrative.

Both these accounts have some truth and yet it seems to me that a movement opposed to those in power shouldn’t act surprised when those in power campaign against them. It seems almost silly to moan about it. It definitely looks weak to me as the main reason for failure: surely your strategy should have taken account of the fact those in power would fight back?

So while admitting that human rights defenders and leftist campaigners still get killed in Colombia, let’s look at two other reasons Colombia might have such a weak left. The first is the FARC: their tactics, often bloody, frequently far from communism, have delegitimised leftist discourse in the country. Every time the FARC come out and say something reasonable, such as pointing out that the rich have stolen land from the poor in Colombia and they should give it back, it makes it harder for the point to be made in public discourse. However committed to peaceful methods you may be, if you appear to repeat something the FARC have said, you appear to align yourself with a group that uses kidnappings, cocaine revenues and child soldiers.

That is reason number one. Reason number two I stumbled across the other day. I was talking to a man who runs a youth centre in the poor parts of Cartagena and he said two things a couple of minutes apart. The first was that all the kids get into drugs and drug dealing really easily because it is around them all the time. The second was in response to a question about what the poor think about the very rich in the city.

Cartagena slums

“Of course they want to have that life too, not to be rich, but to have enough to be comfortable,” came the answer, adding later on that there is never any political protest in the slums. It struck me that reacting to the rich with desire rather than anger may well be linked to the drug dealing. Because the latter offers a path out of poverty. A very, very tenuous and dangerous path, but a visible path nonetheless. Perhaps it acts as a safety valve then: it allows those in the slums to believe, in a society that presents them few opportunities, that they too can live in a shiny white tower block by the sea.

Cartagena, elsewhere

So do these two reasons for a weak left, one to do with public discourse and legitimacy, the other to do with the environment undermining grassroots activity, also hold true in the UK? I think the former does but I’m not sure about the second. It is true that the UK has a certain number of careers where a lot of money can be made fast if you have luck and the right contacts – banking springs immediately to mind. I’m told there is even a certain degree of meritocracy in the city, or at least it is not entirely dominated by the publicly educated. So those who are dissatisfied with their lot in life can take another path. But much as I like the idea of comparing drug-dealing with banking, I’m not sure the latter provides a safety valve. It’s more that we don’t need a safety valve yet because too many people are still too comfortable to want to risk trying anything new.

The question of legitimacy is more interesting. We don’t quite have an equivalent of the FARC. Well, we don’t have any armed leftist groups, yet somehow the left have managed to delegitimise themselves anyway. In the past many groups aligned themselves with authoritarian states, and even those who didn’t continued to talk about “revolution” in a form many people saw as discredited by the real world.

They also adopted tactics not acceptable to the general population. Many people see strikes as holding people to ransom for selfish reasons. There are often good reasons to go on strikes and there is certainly a role for them but the way strikes have often been used does make them appear to benefit only a few. The truth is, strikes often don’t evoke solidarity from other workers, they evoke a feeling that someone is trying to get a benefit others are unable to access.

Then there are protests. The radical left in particular loves a rowdy protest, but they look threatening to other people. They scare people off from joining a cause they may well believe in. I was amazed how few radical campaigners in the UK understood the decision of the Spanish indignados to sign up to non-violence. It was not a belief in complete non-violence that drove them to do it. They did so as a tactical decision, so that more people would want to join them.

Strikes and street protests are held sacred by many but that seems to me to be missing the point. If what you want to do is alter social relations then the point is to alter social relations, not use the same tactics over and over again that have so far not altered social relations as you might like. It’s like the FARC thinking that armed struggle will turn Colombia into a socialist paradise. The evidence is against it and their tactics mean most people are against them even trying.

You might argue that the government or those with power decide what is legitimate, and so any discussion of what is legimitate is sullied by the discourse of the powerful. That is partially true and we should bear it in mind. But it is not completely true. No matter how much people are influenced by those in power, we have to believe they have their own take on the world too.

And on that note, a final point: a lot of the working class in the UK don’t recognise themselves as the working class, and many of those who are would rather not be. Attempting to build up working class identity as the vehicle for a movement failed because that identity – and leftists really should have understood this – was something that people wanted to leave behind. Trying to force your view of the world on people is bad enough, trying to force your view of people on the people themselves is unforgivable.

The left is weak not just because they get attacked, but because they constantly screw themselves over by believing so strongly in what they do that the issue of legitimacy in the eyes of others seems irrelevant to them. We may not have the FARC in the UK but most of the UK left have the same intellectual ancestors as the FARC. I think that shows in their self-righteous insistence on forms of struggle that I suspect actually undermine any chance of changing how people relate to each other. Which should, after all, be the point.

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3 Responses to The UK from Colombia: FARCing the left

  1. Mat says:

    I like this article but I think you’re putting too much emphasis on the failures of “the left”. The fact is that in Britain, no matter what happens in the world, anything beyond a state-backed neoliberalism doesn’t garner adherents. The fact that Ed Balls and the Labour are against a financial transactions tax puts them somewhere to the right of Nicholas Sarkozy. To take a more populist example, the myriad problems of professional football and the treatment of fans as merely cash cows, doesn’t create a sustained response as it should. Whereas in Germany the situation is quite different. What I am saying is that politics and the economy are insulated from any divergence from very narrow trajectories. I don’t think you can blame the left for that – other beliefs/programmes that aren’t left but merely in favour of tepid reforms of capitalism of one kind of another don’t get a look in either.

    • contact says:

      I see your point that not even mild reformists get much of a platform. I suspect there are historical reasons for this related to the failure of socialist narratives though – and even Labour centre-leftism hitched itself to those delegitimised narratives to some degree, no? Out of interest why do you think it is different in Germany?

  2. Mat says:

    Well yes, the Labour party was a big part of the labour movement and that was predicated on strikes and collective bargaining. I think what’s missing now is any genuine solidarity. That’s an old word but a needed concept. I remember the last big public sector strikes in the UK. Everything just seemed to be about pensions. The only people seemingly talking about the fact that private sector workers had got worse pensions that public sector equivalents were Conservatives. And they just wanted to level down. A positive solidarity movement, aiming to highlight crap or non-existent private sector pensions, was crying out to happen. As for Germany, they have co-determination – workers represented on company boards there. That might have something to do with. The old East Germany seems also to have preserved an oppositional outlook and Die Linke has to some extent prospered despite it being the heir of Erich Honnecker.

    By the way, you mention ‘altering social relations’. Yes that’s the point but easier said than done. I’d be interested to hear what you think about how to go about it

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